Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement by Nori J. Muster Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997 ISBN: 0-252-02263-7 213 pages. Hardback. Click here to order from Amazon.co.uk
Nori J. Muster was a member of the Hare Krishna sect, formally known as the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), from 1977 through 1988. She recounts her decade of "devotional service" at the ISKCON public relations headquarters in Los Angeles in an honest and interesting account. Betrayal of the Spirit represents a personal insight into the behind-the-scenes propaganda machine developed by some of ISKCON's "gurus." As Nandini (Muster's devotee name) the author worked for the ISKCON World Review, the sect's primary PR and in-house newspaper. Circulation reached well over ten thousand throughout the world. World Review's purpose was to not only inform the members of the goals and gains of the group, but it also featured articles that amounted to damage control of the increasing scandals that plagued the movement. Muster writes of her years as a member during the most difficult period faced by the sect. She joined just after the founder, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (Srila Prabhupada), died and left his colorful organization with too many immature, confused and corrupt leaders. Woven throughout Muster's presentation of Hare Krishna corruption is her struggle to remain a good devotee according to the principles set down by Prabhupada. Her relationship with her father, Bill Muster, also provides a subplot that enlightens us even more about the "politics" behind the PR scenes. Bill Muster was an accomplished communications professional and businessman who sustained a close relationship with his daughter all the while she worked for ISKCON. He often advised "Nandini" and her boss, Mukunda, with valuable strategies. This did not mean that he approved of all the group stood for, but he did support his daughter's chosen spiritual path. He died of cancer not long after Nori Muster found herself outside of ISKCON in 1988. Muster was not seeking to quit ISKCON. The pervasive suppression of women's natural rights under Prabhupada's chauvinistic system and her desire to assert those rights, coupled to finally set her aside. In the end, Nandini could not convince her bosses to report the news of ISKCON's plights accurately. Despite talk of efforts to reform the movement, the male chauvinism won out; Nandini's efforts were dismissed. Back in the world as Nori Muster, the author tells us that she still sustains her belief in Krishna as her God. At times she participates in devotional activity at the temples and chants the mantra. I find this last statement filled not only with loyalty and devotion, but also with irony and a touch of denial. I find little in Muster's book about Prabhupada's mixed messages he sent to his leaders about selling books and fundraising. Muster does not write of strong indications in letters by Prabhupada that speak of an insatiable need to have his books distributed and his name recognized globally. Hare Krishna devotees, whether in or out of ISKCON, might admit to corruption within the managerial ranks, but few dare criticize Prabhupada who they see as the "pure devotee" worthy of a godlike worship. The hyperactive response in ISKCON to recruit new members and raise money, even illegally and unethically, had to grow from the founder's instruction. As Muster indicates, "Prabhupada said" was as good as a word from Krishna Himself to many of the devotees. Many Hare Krishna's and their agents knew that Prabhupada was pleased with all the money they brought in from major drug sales. Prabhupada made a point to disapprove of selling drugs, but the successful drug sellers were the ones who could "catch the big fish without getting wet," which was a Prabhupada saying. To her credit, Muster does not flinch in recounting the facts about the corruption. The book's greatest value, I think, rests in its sensitive exposure of the intricate guru system Prabhupada unwittingly left behind. It becomes clear that Prabhupada retained ultimate leadership in himself through his writings, and he did not invest an equal rank to anyone, despite the claims of a few ISKCON gurus. Muster both describes and explains this power struggle within the ISKCON sect and self better than anyone has, to my knowledge. Exposures like hers are needed if Prabhupada's movement is to continue in its struggle to reform and to become a worthy home for devotees like Nandini, who Nori Muster once was.